Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
The Japanese Defenses
The Assault in the Center
The Assault Continues
The Early Battle in the Division Center
The 7th Marines' Complete Destruction of Enemy in the South
Maneuver and Opportunity
Encirclement of the Umurbrogol Pocket
Encirclement of Umurbrogol and Seizure of Northern Peleliu
The Umurbrogol Pocket: Peleliu's Character Distilled
Post-assault Operations in the Palaus
Was the Seizure of Peleliu Necessary? Costs vs. Benefits
The Divisions and their Commanders
For Extraordinary Heroism
Special Subjects
The Changing Nature of Japanese Tactics
Naval Gunfire Support for Peleliu
A Horrible Place
Special Reef-crossing Techniques
A Paucity of Reserves
Tom Lea's Paintings

BLOODY BEACHES: The Marines at Peleliu
by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret)

At dusk, Hunt's Company K held the Point, but by then the Marines had been reduced to platoon strength, with no adjacent units in contact. Only the sketchy radio communications got through to bring in supporting fires and desperately needed re-supply. One LVT got into the beach just before dark, with grenades, mortar shells, and water. It evacuated casualties as it departed. The ammunition made the difference in that night's furious struggle against Japanese determined to recapture the Point.

landing beaches
The skies over the landing beaches of Peleliu are blackened with smoke rising from the ground as the result of the combined naval and aerial prelanding bombardment, as amphibian tractors rush shoreward carrying the assault waves. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 94913

The Changing Nature of Japanese Tactics

Japan launched its December 1941 surprise attacks in the expectation that its forces could quickly seize a forward line of Pacific and Asian empire. Thereafter, it expected to defend these territories stubbornly enough to tire and bleed the Allies and then to negotiate a recognization of Japanese hegemony.

This strategic concept was synchronized with the fanatic Japanese spirit of bushido. Faith in their army's moral superiority over lesser races lead the Japanese to expect 19th-century banzai tactics to lead invariably to success. Expectations and experience meshed until their 1942 encounters with the Allies, particularly with Americans in the Solomons. Thereafter, it took several campaigns to internalize the lessons of defeat by modern infantry weapons in the hands of the determined Allies.

To Americans, these Japanese misconceptions were alarming, but cost-effective. It was easier, and less costly, to mow down banzai attacks than to dig stubborn defenders out of fortified positions.

By spring of 1944, the lessons had permeated to the highest levels of Japan's army command. When General Hideki Tojo instructed General Inoue to defend the Palaus deliberately and conservatively, he was bringing Japanese tactics into support of Japanese strategy. Henceforth, Japanese soldiers would dig in and hunker down, to make their final defenses as costly as possible to the attacking Americans.

The next afternoon, Lieutenant Colonel Raymond G. Davis' 1/1 moved its Company B to establish contact with Hunt, to help hang onto the bitterly contested positions. Hunt's company also regained the survivors of the platoon which had been pinned at the beach fight throughout D-Day. Of equal importance, the company regained artillery and naval gunfire communications, which proved critical during the second night. That night, the Japanese organized another and heavier — two companies — counterattack directed at the Marines at the Point. It was narrowly defeated. By mid-morning, D plus 2, Hunt's survivors, together with Company B, 1/1, owned the Point, and could look out upon some 500 Japanese who had died defending or trying to re-take it.

Marines and corpsmen
Marines and corpsmen scramble ashore and seek any cover they can to escape the incoming murderous enemy mortar and artillery fire. Behind them, smoking and abandoned, are amphibian tractors which were hit as they approached the beach

To the right of Puller's struggling 3d Battalion, his 2d Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Russell E. Honsowetz commanding, met artillery and mortar opposition in landing, as well as machine-gun fire from still effective beach defenders. The same was true for 5th Marines' two assault battalions, Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Boyd's 1/5 and Lieutenant Colonel Austin C. Shofner's 3/5, which fought through the beach defenses and toward the edge of the clearing looking east over the airfield area.

On the division's right flank, Orange 3, Major Edward H. Hurst's 3/7 had to cross directly in front of a commanding defensive fortification flanking the beach as had Marines in the flanking position on the Point. Fortunately, it was not as close as the Point position, and did not inflict such heavy damage. Nevertheless, its enfilading fire, together with some natural obstructions on the beach caused Company K, 3/7, to land left of its planned landing beach, onto the right half of beach Orange 2, 3/5's beach. In addition to being out of position, and out of contact with the company to its right, Company K, 3/7, became intermingled with Company K, 3/5, a condition fraught with confusion and delay. Major Hurst necessarily spent time regrouping his separated battalion, using as a coordinating line a large anti-tank ditch astride his line of advance. His eastward advance then resumed, somewhat delayed by his efforts to regroup.

Japanese antiboat gun
Situated in a cave overlooking the airfield is this heavy caliber Japanese antiboat gun. It had a field of fire which included the invasion beaches and the airfield. Caption and photograph by Phillip D. Orr

Japanese pillbox
Damaged heavily in the D-Day bombardment, this Japanese pillbox survives on the southern promontory of White Beach. Now vacant, its gun lies on the beach. Caption and by Phillip D. Orr

Naval Gunfire Support for Peleliu

In their earlier operations, especially at Guadalcanal, the primary experience of 1st Division Marines with naval gunfire was at the receiving end. On New Britain, the character and disposition of Japanese defenses did not call for extensive pre-landing fire support, nor did subsequent operations ashore. The naval gunfire to which the Guadalcanal veterans were exposed frequently and heavily damaged planes and installations ashore. Its effect upon dug-in Marines was frightening and sobering, but rarely destructive.

During the planning for Peleliu, the division staff initially had no trained naval gunfire (NGF) planner. When one arrived, he was hampered by the cumbersome communications link back to higher headquarters, Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith's Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (FMFPac), in Honolulu, which would provide the essential targeting information for the division's NGF plan. FMFPac also would plan and allocate the available gunfire resources to the targets deemed important by the division staff's planners. The preoccupation of FMFPac with the ongoing Marianas campaigns, as well as illness on the staff of Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, Commander, Naval Gunfire Support Group, further limited and constrained the preparations. Heavy ammunition expenditures in the Marianas reduced ammunition availability for Peleliu.

Surprisingly, during the delivery of U.S. preparatory fires, there was no Japanese response. This prompted Oldendorf to report all known targets destroyed, and to cancel preparatory fires scheduled for D plus 3. An unintentional benefit of this uncoordinated change in naval gunfire plan may have resulted in there being more shells available for post-landing NGF support. But the costliest effect of inadequate NGF was that the flanking positions north and south of the landing beaches were not taken out. The selection of naval gunfire targets could certainly have been done with more careful attention. Colonel Lewis B. Puller, the 1st Marines commander, had specifically asked for the destruction of the positions dominating his landing on the division left flanks. Failure to do so was paid for in blood, courage, and time during the critical battle for the Point.

damaged building
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 95115

Subsequent to D-Day there were numerous instances of well-called and -delivered naval gunfire support: night illumination during the night of 15-16 September, the destruction of two major blockhouses earlier reported "destroyed," and effective support of the Ngesebus landing toward the end of the battle.

Any delay was anathema to the division commander, who visualized momentum as key to his success. The division scheme of maneuver on the right called for the 7th Marines (Colonel Herman H. Hanneken) to land two battalions in column, both over Beach Orange 3. As Hurst's leading battalion advanced, it was to be followed in trace by Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley's 1/7. Gormley's unit was to tie into Hurst's right flank, and re-orient southeast and south as that area was uncovered. He was then to attack southeast and south, with his left on Hurst's right, and his own right on the beach. After Hurst's battalion reached the opposite shore, both were to attack south, defending Scarlet 1 and Scarlet 2, the southern landing beaches.

At the end of a bloody first hour, all five battalions were ashore. The closer each battalion was to Umurbrogol, the more tenuous was its hold on the shallow beachhead. During the next two hours, three of the division's four remaining battalions would join the assault and press for the momentum General Rupertus deemed essential.

(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Following close behind Sabol's 3/1, the 1st Marines' Colonel Puller landed his forward command group. As always, he was eager to be close to the battle, even if that location deprived him of some capacity to develop full supporting fires. With limited communications, and now with inadequate numbers of LVTs for follow-on waves, he struggled to ascertain and improve his regiment's situation. His left unit (Company K, 3/1) had two of its platoons desperately struggling to gain dominance at the Point. Puller's plan to land Major Davis' 1st Battalion behind Sabol's 3/1, to reinforce the fight for the left flank, was thwarted by the H-hour losses in LVTs. Davis' companies had to be landed singly and his battalion committed piecemeal to the action. On the regiment's right, Honsowetz' 2/1 was hotly engaged, but making progress toward capture of the west edges of the scrub which looked out onto the airfield area. He was tied on his right into Boyd's 1/5, which was similarly engaged.

In the beachhead's southern sector, the landing of Gormley's 1/7 was delayed somewhat by its earlier loses in LVTs. That telling effect of early opposition would be felt throughout the remainder of the day. Most of Gormley's battalion landed on the correct (Orange 3) beach, but a few of his troops were driven leftward by the still enfilading fire from the south flank of the beach, and landed on Orange 2, in the 5th Marines' zone of action. Gormley's battalion was brought fully together behind 3/7 however, and as Hurst's leading 3/7 was able to advance east, Gormley's 1/7 attacked southeast and south, against prepared positions.

Hanneken's battle against heavy opposition from both east and south developed approximately as planned. Suddenly, in mid-afternoon, the opposition grew much heavier. Hurst's 3/7 ran into a blockhouse, long on the Marines' map, which had been reported destroyed by pre-landing naval gunfire. As a similar situation later met on Puller's inland advance, the blockhouse showed little evidence of ever having been visited by heavy fire. Preparations to attack and reduce this blockhouse further delayed the 7th Marines' advance, and the commanding general fretted further about loss of momentum.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division